Archive | June, 2013

Suspect Academic Journals

25 Jun

On my wanderings across the internet I came across Jeffrey Beall’s fantastic site Scholarly Open Access.  His site is a fantastic resource for suspected academic journals and the publishers that produce them.  The journals that are listed are nothing more than cash cows for catching unwary researchers by charging them to publish their own articles in journals that are not properly edited or peer-reviewed.  This is often a trap that PhD and Post-Doctoral students can fall into as they aim to publish their research to gain academic credit and traction to start an academic career.  However it is well noted that established academic researchers and lecturers often collude, willingly or unwillingly and sometimes unknowingly, by serving as editors on the journal boards.  Ben Goldacre, in his 2012 book ‘Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients‘, mentions the damage that this can do to scientific research and to human health.  It is a serious problem in the academic world that has real world effects in the application of scientific research and results.  The criteria by which Beall determines predatory open access publishers can be found here and the full list of potential, possible or predatory scholarly open access journals and publishers themselves can be accessed here.

Guest Post: ‘Bones in the Backyard: Bringing Forensic Anthropology into the Science Classroom’ by Shivani Lamba.

18 Jun

Shivani Lamba is the Company Director of Forensic Outreach, based in London, which she initially joined as Programme Coordinator in 2009. She spearheaded the organisation’s initiative to create public engagement experiences online. The organisation was established in 2001, and has long been a dynamic and active part of the science curriculum in classrooms throughout the UK and EU. It was conceived to introduce forensic science as an integrative and cross-disciplinary approach to science education, and has delivered programmes to over one-hundred academic institutions and charities.


The Stories They Tell

There are, to put it mildly, some rather surreal moments in my time as a Forensic Outreach instructor.  I’ve cataloged medieval skeletal remains on the wooden office floor, sifting through them next to a newly-qualified doctor with an almost preternatural ability to instantly recognise bone types on sight. These specimens had been selected for shipping to the fabled Bone Room in Albany, California – and the task of wrapping and labelling led us late into the evening.  There were the innumerable times a small portion of our collection had been carefully packaged into a rolling suitcase, transported along with our instructors on the London underground, ready to be handled by keen children and adults across the country (and later the continent). And finally, there was the rather macabre experience of opening a new shipment to encounter a beautiful rib cage specimen – without any prior warning, of course.

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Bodies and Bones, read more at Forensic Outreach.

When I’m pressed by my students to tell these stories, it’s with mixed feelings: concern that this is all too bizarre an existence (for two years, the office housed another medieval skeleton affectionately named Horace) and strangely, gratitude.  Reassuringly, it’s in part because of our small collection that Forensic Outreach has engaged children and adults alike – where possible, we allow our audiences to handle them, to turn them about, to draw themselves close to these bits and pieces.  There’s no better way to inspire an interest in forensic anthropology than to ensure that our students come to grips with it – quite literally – and understand the experiences real field anthropologists have everyday.  In actuality, the forensic anthropology component of our workshops is usually just that: part of a larger day which includes other “forensic” exercises, or a component of a class series.

Still, for years, we’ve found that forensic anthropology – and the bones – are perhaps the most compelling sessions we offer.  It begs the question: just what is it about this field that has everyone intrigued?

Looking Closely at Bonefied Amazement

On a serious note, I’d venture to say it has a bit to do with audiences actually examining their own mortality. Our older audiences, for some reason, seem particularly engrossed. They are eager to ask who these individuals were, and where in time their lives were situated. Our specimens were initially supplied by a company located in the charming old-world Bloomsbury, London, which specialised in models and skeletons for use in medical school lecture theaters. We didn’t know much about their persona lives, other than the fact that their remains had been dated to the High Middle Age (which began after AD 1000). There’s a certain fascination in facing the inevitability of it all — the fact that this is an individual who existed centuries ago, and that perhaps we all face a similar fate as history relegates us to our true position. Of course, this isn’t the case in forensic anthropology, which of course involves the recently-deceased.

Another aspect (also speculative) may be that this is the closest our audiences will come to analysing the “most valuable piece of evidence” or the body itself.  There are no dissection rooms open to the public – for good reason – and a gap therefore exists in their practical understanding of why the body is so significant in criminal investigations. Forensic anthropology usually follows an introductory workshop on death and decomposition when delivered as part of a masterclass; or at the very least, some indication of what normally precedes the “drying out” of the corpse.  Afterwards, our students are told they will have an opportunity to get up-close and personal with real skeletal remains, and examine them for clues that betray the gender, age and health of the individuals in question.  Out they come, then, the plastic containers with pieces of our collection laid neatly inside, surprisingly hardy and prepared for anything.

STEM, Public Engagement and Why We Do It

The aim of our lectures, workshops and other programmes is to encourage an interest in STEM, as well as to improve public understanding of what forensic science entails and what the discipline truly entails. Our organisation originally began as a Widening Participation initiative, and was designed to inspire children from socioeconomically-disadvantaged backgrounds to embrace new career paths in the sciences.  Eventually, the responsibilities became too great for a University department to manage single-handedly, and Forensic Outreach spun off in its own direction – with links to UCL (and now the Jill Dando Institute of  Security and Crime Science) intact.  We’re fortunate to have the autonomy to continue developing our own innovative programmes without institutional limitations, but close ties to ensure that joint-activities are still possible.

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Careers and Classroom, read more about science education at Forensic Outreach.

Without waxing lyrical about CSI syndrome, there is also a legitimate concern that for the layman, forensic science is entirely informed by popular media: Bones, Dexter and even more unfortunately, CSI.  There’s therefore a focus on ensuring accurate information is disseminated – and where possible (especially in our online activities) we integrate the recommendations and suggestions of forensic scientists who watch us to improve our outreach.

Further Information:

If you’re interested in finding more about Forensic Outreach, please visit our website. We also run a Twitter feed (@forensicfix), where we provide a seemingly endless drip of forensic trivia. Considering booking an event with us? Write to hello@forensicoutreach.com.

‘Rise of the Continents’

11 Jun

In the new BBC series ‘Rise of the Continents‘ Professor Iain Stewart discussed the origin of the African continent in the first episode, which aired on the 9th June and is available on the BBC Iplayer here, and nicely tied the opening episode with evolutionary history.  Africa is rich in wildlife and geographical diversity, and it is, of course, the birthplace of our species, Homo sapiens.  For me this program highlighted the importance of understanding geology and geography when considering the origin and evolution of animal life on earth (us included, of course).  In particular the way in which the continents themselves effect evolution through the combined changes of the landscape, climate and geography, which are fundamentally altered through deep geological time as continents shift.  This is important in considering the effects of both evolution on animal species (including the Homo lineage), and the impact of a changing landscape on human populations.

On viewing the program (and becoming engrossed by the palaeontology), my immediate thoughts shifted to two massive geographical changes which impacted on European human and animal populations during the Mesolithic period.

Doggerland‘ is the modern name for the submerged landscape where now the North Sea sits in North-West Europe.  However, up until around 5000 BC the area was dry land which helped connect the islands of the UK to mainland Europe, and the area, termed ‘Doggerland‘, was home to a variety of flora and faunal populations and home to hunter-gatherer humans societies (Gaffney et al. 2009).  This was due to water being locked up in the form of ice during the last Ice Age which substantially lowered sea levels in the North Sea basin.  However, from the Last Glacial Maximum (23,000 to roughly 13,000 BC) to the Late Glacial Maximum (11,000-8,000 BC) in the Northern Hemisphere, the environment changed and the sea level rose, eventually separating the modern day countries of the UK and Ireland from mainland Europe.

On the other side of Europe another monumental landscape change was underway.  The Black Sea, located in South Western Europe, has long been a focus of on-going palaeoclimate research (Siddall et al. 2004, Turney & Brown 2007; also see the UNESCO funded project ‘Caspian-Black Sea-Mediterranean Corridor during the last 30 ky: Sea Level Change and Human Adaptive Strategies‘).  In particular it was unclear whether the Black Sea, with its highly fluctuating water levels, remained an isolate lake during the Late Glacial Maximum, or whether it remained connected to the world sea by the Bhosporus and Dardanelles straits.  Studies and modelling (Siddall et al. 2004) suggest that the Black Sea water level was a lot lower during the Late Glacial Maximum, but following this period increased in water level and overall size.

It’s important to reflect on the effect that these landscape changes would have had on prehistoric cultures.  ‘Doggerland’ is well known for the amount of artefacts and animal bones that are dragged up by trawlers and other fishing vessels (Gaffney et al.  2009), whilst archaeologists have found prehistoric structures and artefacts in the flooded landscape of the Black Sea.  In particular it marked a time of isolation for the islands of Britain and Ireland, which are reflected in the material culture following the separation.  The Black Sea infilling proper likely caused human populations around the area to adapt and change their strategies in hunting and surviving.  With the advent of agricultural in Europe during the Neolithic period (roughly 7000BC-1700BC), the trade and exchange of ideas, material cultural and people was no doubt influenced by changes in the landscape.

The ‘Rise of the Continents’ series is well worth a watch, and I am particularly looking forward to future episodes in the series.

Bibliography:

Gaffney, V., Fitch, S. & Smith, D. 2009. Europe’s Lost Land: The Rediscovery of Doggerland. Council Of British Archaeology: York.

Siddall, M., Pratt, L. J., Helfrich, K. R. & Giosan, L. 2004. Testing the Physical Oceanographic Implications of the Suggested Sudden Black Sea Infill 8400 Years Ago. Palaeoceanography. 19: 1-11.

Turney, C. S. M. & Brown, H. 2007. Catastrophic Early Holocene Sea Level Rise, Human Migration, and the Neolithic Transition in Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews.  26 (17-18): 2036-2041.

A Broken RSS Feed (Now Fixed)

2 Jun

The RSS feed on this blog has been broken a while, therefore if you enjoy the blog’s content and wish to sign up  for updates please click the ‘subscribe’ button at the bottom of this page for updates via email.  Although RSS feed has been validated it does not currently display content or updates.  I have messaged WordPress forums for advice, and the post and particular problem I am having can be found here.  If you have any advice or can help, please feel free to comment.

I recently joined the Research Blogging website, as These Bones of Mine is blogging site where scientific articles are regularly discussed and commented upon.  However, because the RSS feed is broken my posts are not being picked up by the Research Blogging site.  It is hoped that this can be fixed soon, but please note that although my posts are currently not featuring on the Research Blogging site, These Bones of Mine has been approved to join and proudly displays the logo on the relevant blog entries.

Update (03/06/2013):

The RSS feed has now been fixed courtesy of a poster on the WordPress forums.  I mainly use Google Chrome when writing and editing the content on this blog and the helpful poster pointed me in this direction (A Google RSS Subscription Extension) which, when added to Chrome, seems to fix the problem.  Internet Explorer also displays the feed now.  I feel that the previous posts with ‘Research Blogging’ code probably won’t show up on that site, but future posts hopefully should.  If you have any continuing problems please feel free to comment below.

Radio 4’s ‘Disability: A New History’

2 Jun

The BBC’s Radio 4 station has recently been running an interesting and enlightening documentary series entitled ‘Disability: A New History‘, which focuses on historical views and attitudes towards disable people and individuals in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.  The series, which is presented by Peter White, runs to a total of 12 episodes with each episode lasting around 15 minutes.  The series tackles a different theme each week, with episodes from views on ‘disabled identity’ to ‘being and doing’ and ‘sex and marriage’, to the detailed case studies of disabled individuals and what they experienced.  The series will be available to listen to online via the BBC Iplayer website here for the foreseeable future.  There is also an online slideshow of historical images depicting varying disabilities discussed or mentioned in the show here.

One of the guests that has featured on the show so far is noted Medieval cultural historian Dr Irina Metzler*, who has extensively researched disability during the Medieval period.  In her first book, ‘Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking About Physical Impairment in the High Medieval Ages 1100-1400‘, Metzler discussed the theoretical background of disability (via the social construct) and the physical impairment (via the physiological condition) during the Medieval period in Europe.  In particular her focus contextualizes disability within the medieval theoretical mindset and cultural concepts at the time through looking at relevant case studies, historical documents and written religious examples.

Released recently is the second part of this research, entitled ‘A Social history of Disability in the Medieval Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment‘, which discusses the social and economic aspects of an individual’s disability, specifically regarding legal status and effects of law on disabled persons.  Further to this the research delves into the effects of aging and the physical deterioration of the body ‘together with (the) social, medical and technical attempts at amelioration‘, and is concluded by a discussion on the meaning of charity for the disabled person.

I am currently eagerly awaiting the arrival of Metzler’s first published book through the post, and I look forward to reading the second work, especially with regards to how the perception of disability in the medieval period can be compared and contrasted against the modern world’s cultural attitudes to disability and physical impairment.  In the meantime I shall listen to the rest of this interesting, lively and informative radio series.

*Post amended on the 27/06/13 to correct Dr Irina Metzler’s name.

Bibliography:

Metzler, I. 2006. Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking About Physical Impairment During the High Middle Ages 1100-1400 (Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture). London: Routledge.

Metzler, I. 2013. A Social History of Disability in the Medieval Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment (Routledge Studies in Cultural History). London: Routledge.